Ground Zero (Plus Five)


Distant and dead resuscitate.
They show as the dial or move as the hands of me …
and I am the clock myself.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Soaring and groaning, sweet melodic lines falling into agonised chording, the solo violin was straining against air, echoing across Battery Point, Manhattan’s southernmost tip, as first light rose across New York Harbour.



Jersey City, Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty took form in the orange light, and Jennifer Koh’s impassioned playing drew the crowd in across the grass. JS Bach’s Partita No 2 in D minor it was, a piece that seems to draw everything out of the instrument, and leave it no more than shavings and gut. At that point, where sky, earth and water meet, with night coming into day, eight blocks down from Ground Zero, it stunned all of us into silence the 80 or so people here for the dawn service, the seated row of councillors and clerics, the joggers who either stopped or didn’t, pounding past determined, bright eyes blinking.

No flags, no anthems. No sobbing, no hugging just people ranged across the lawn, half-standing or squatting, damp-faced, stuck in thought. Here is where the planes cross from Newark to New York, from La Guardia to New Jersey and here was where two had wheeled and turned back in, five years ago.

This was no ceremony in honour of a symbol, but a service for local residents, whose neighbourhood simply happened to include what had been the world’s largest piece of speculative real estate. No one was poor, but it wasn’t all bankers. It was secretaries, cops, deli owners, cab drivers by the look of it, workers from the Fulton Fish Market suits and shirtsleeves, briefcases and lunchbags.

The sun was higher now, on our faces. It was going to be a hot day. With a giant cut-off shout, the violin finished. Silence, and no one knew whether to applaud or not.

Later, it would seem that the piece had been at the wrong end of the day a draining, exhausting, elemental work, which no words could supplement or supplant. As we came up Broadway to Ground Zero still a concrete reinforced hole in the ground, there so long it looks deliberate, a brutalist mausoleum piece the day felt scattered, vague, groups of people drifting cross-wise to each other, lines of relatives-of-the-dead being lead through barriers, being continually dismantled and re-assembled. It was the day before the Democratic primaries for New York, and the spruikers were out in force, two dozen candidates, a hundred placards, getting out the vote.

Present too were the growing band of 9/11 skeptics, the TLIH crowd (‘they let it happen’ those who believe the Bush Government knew what would occur and used it as the cornerstone of a new national security State) and the hardcore TMIH crowd (‘they made it happen’ by planting explosives in the towers, detonated when the planes hit, or, they would say, ‘appeared to hit’).

Hardcore is literal here a lot of the 9/11 skeptics are punks in the Henry Rollins ‘straight edge’ style, and their gesture strikes as a grand refusal, a deliberate desire to withhold common feeling. They piss off the crowd, they get threatened with a beating which is, of course, the point.

Then at 8:46am, the pealing of a bell from beyond the cyclone fencing around the site, and a slow sad role from the drum corps. There were thousands around the edge of the site now. The Star Spangled Banner began the song, as such songs will, moving people’s lips involuntarily. And the reading of the names began, done by spouses and partners of the dead from a podium at the centre of the site, broadcast out across the net of streets, the oldest part of the city there when it was still the Dutch-dominated town of New Amsterdam.

Image: Ula Kuras, Indymedia NYC

Disturbing act, reading the names. Usually associated with warriors, with men in uniform. The sheer duration of the crawl through the alphabet it took us ten minutes to get out of the letter A emphasised as nothing else could, the scale of the event, pulled it back momentarily from the spectacular. Yet even here, at the heart of it, spectacle was dominant; the event becoming, in the city of Warhol, of Laurie Anderson, of Philip Glass, an involuntary art event, a study in process and numinous monotony, a companion piece to the event itself.

I seize the descending man.
I raise him with resistless will.

Strange day, shining day. Cloudless, the bright sun turning the skyscrapers silver as blades. All across the city there were cops, ambos, firemen in solitary tears, at streetcorners, leaning against walls in the subway. And useless, because try counting out how many deaths in Gaza, in Iraq, in Darfur, in Malawi would take up each of the towers. The authors of the event relied on the specialness that would attach to each life lost, the ceaseless follow up of relatives in the New York Times, the valedictory ads from bond trading houses, listing the dozens, or hundreds, of staff lost in the high floors.

To try and consign it to history, to put a small memorial and rebuild speculative and spectacular commercial space would be the most obvious, and also impossible, thing to do. To continue the reading of names, year in year out is to wrap the city around the as yet unconstructed void.

Did Mohammed Atta (one of the terrorist hijackers) know, at some level, that the work of mourning, even if it was stared down full in the face, could never be completed in the case of an event as spectacularly bizarre, as gratuitous, as this? His urban planning thesis was on the preservation of the Arab city of Aleppo, and he was known to be upset by the way in which modernity was swallowing up classic Arab towns (one of the culprits of course being the Bin Laden construction company). Clearly he had some idea as to how cities remember what they have lost; hold it in place.

Laughably, this ruthless and fanatical man is sometimes accused of being a nihilist, as if his value system was not diamond hard. What he faced were two towers of featureless office space that were really silos of nothingness, of space as pure commodity which is why the decision as to how to rebuild has become so agonised and insoluble.

Had they been a cathedral, we would know instantly what to do, and the only question would be as to whether a modern or traditional style should be used. Only a building that was seen by many as the death-knell of New York modernism ushering in an era when developers no longer felt obliged to hire a Mies van der Rohe or a Skidmore Owings and Merrill for their biggest projects, and could simply throw up no-frills back-of-a-napkin designed works could create such contradiction. The proposed replacement Liebeskind’s Freedom Tower has the unusual distinction of being a far greater building than the one it seeks to commemorate by replacing.

Strange day, scattered. We came back through the financial district, and through the West Village, one of the last places on the island where a vestige of bohemia remains. A choir had set up on the triangle of grass outside the Stonewall pub. A transvestite wearing angel’s wings walked by. I reflected on the two services and why they seemed better at connecting to spectacle to wordless music, to visuals and choreographies than with channelling a more articulate sense of knowing
what being here was for.

The recited poems one by Mark van Doran, one by US Poet Laureate Billy Collins were sweet, anodyne homilies; the gospel songs were generic, modern, unrhymed. Why on this day of days would you not connect to the central celebrations of your own culture by roaring out Whitman or Sandburg (‘Two years, ten years and passengers ask the conductor/ What place is this?/ Where are we now/ I am the grass/Let me work’) even Dickinson (‘This is the hour of lead/Remembered if outlived’), Amazing Grace, Simple Gifts, Battle Hymn of the Republic?

Why this inability to say what one is?

We had gone to the dawn service direct from an allnighter at the Spiegeltent, set up beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, which had hosted a rare and extraordinary performance by The Watts Prophets and The Last Poets, the two African-American spoken-word groups from the 1960s who had laid the basis for rap, hip-hop and much more besides. Their poems/songs/chants which need to be heard rather than read had no trouble taking the prophetic voice (‘Be the revolution for our world/turn yourself into yourself/and then onto this disordered world/and arrange the laughter for joy’, My People, The Last Poets) that proved so elusive for the official celebrations.

Coming from that uproarious evening into a dawn light that soared briefly in the sound of Bach, which would have fallen to a more quotidian space if the futility, the nothingness that the World Trade Centre had represented, had not somehow crept into the mourning of it and coiled around its heart.

And at the end of it was both the worst and best of it the twin columns of light, projected from the WTC footprint, bouncing off clouds. Impossible to know whether it summed up hope or fantasy, the capacity to dream anew, or the inability to face what has changed.

I understand the large hearts of heroes.
The courage of present and all times.
I am the man. I suffered. I was there.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.